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Playing it safe at home

Simple security solutions can help residents keep their homes burglar-free day and night.

March 09, 2003|Michelle Hofmann | Special to The Times

Each day in Los Angeles, an estimated 250,000 residents rely on burglar alarms for protection. And despite a 92% false-alarm rate, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to 121,973 burglar alarm calls in 2002.

By the end of this month, however, a new LAPD policy is expected to stop police responses to unverified burglar alarm calls.

The news may leave some residents feeling vulnerable, but security experts say that when it comes to crime prevention, homeowners have plenty of options.

Although there's no formula to explain why a burglar targets a specific location, Det. Susanne Steiner, a security specialist who has spent eight years at the Long Beach Police Department, said most are opportunists looking for signs of inactivity, concealment, wealth and access.

Unfortunately, by the time Jerry Potnick learned to read his home's signs, it was too late. Potnick purchased his two-bedroom West Hills townhome in 1996. He liked the neighborhood. He felt safe. But two years later that sense of security was replaced by a sense of loss when two intruders burglarized his home while the technical writer was at work.

Today, a monitored home alarm system stands sentry over the residence, and the newly cautious Potnick, believing an uncollected package served as a green light for crime, has deliveries shipped to him at work.

His stolen computer equipment now replaced, it's the sentimental items -- family heirlooms -- he misses the most. Like most crime victims, Potnick didn't think it could happen to him.

Although down 6.8% over the same period last year, year-to-date home burglaries citywide totaled 1,704 through the end of January. Studies indicate that residential burglars operate within a three-block radius of familiar routes, favor affluent communities and quiet streets and strike mostly between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.

However, because most burglars prefer quick, low-risk targets, according to Scott Nelson, a former FBI agent and owner of Security & Risk Management Group LLC in Westlake Village, a little crime prevention can go a long way.

Locking up is the first line of defense. In one-third of all burglaries, criminals reportedly gain access through an open window or door. Lock entry points and use solid hardware and deadbolts. Make sure hinge pins are located inside the doorframe or replace standard exterior-facing hinge pins with a nonremovable type. And secure windows and sliding doors with vertical bolts, set screws, window clamps and poles.

"Because burglary is such a crime of opportunity," Steiner said, "the more deterrents you have, the better."

Steiner also recommends using common sense. Residents who leave curtains open at night, leave bikes and tools in plain sight and put empty boxes from high-end purchases out on trash day may inadvertently lure burglars onto their property.

To make matters worse, many homeowners provide access by hiding spare door keys outside, allowing vehicles to follow them into gated communities and leaving personal documents or garage door openers in an unlocked glove compartment.

"If you are parked at a shopping mall and leave your car insurance, registration and garage door opener in your car," Steiner said, a potential burglar "now knows where you live and that you're at the mall. Then they can drive into your garage, load up their car with your stuff and drive away."

L.A. burglaries may be down slightly, but the FBI recently cited identity theft as California's fastest growing crime. Steiner recommends using a door mail slot or locked mailbox, taking outgoing mail to a public box and shredding personal documents.

Good visibility is equally as important as common sense. The dense landscaping that grants homeowner privacy, Steiner explained, also provides criminals with concealment and access time. The best defense: keep bushes and scrubs trimmed to 18 inches, tree canopies above 6 feet and window plants below the sill.

While some plants provide too much cover, security experts say such thorny plants as roses, bougainvillea, cactus and holly create inexpensive, natural defense zones beneath windows and along fence lines.

Lighting, like defensible plants, is a low-cost security option. Motion-detector lights (starting at $25) that brighten vulnerable or isolated exterior entrances are good, but Steiner said multiple exterior lights that remain on at night with glare shields to illuminate specific spaces, rather than light a large area and bother a resident or neighbor, are better.

With the average loss per residential burglary estimated at $1,350, Nelson said a basic alarm system with exterior signs, interior keypads, multiple door and window sensors, motion detectors and sirens is another practical option.

Studies indicate that homes without security systems are about three times more likely to be broken into than homes with alarms. Moreover, many insurance companies offer 5% to 20% discounts on premiums for residents with security systems.

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